CAMP PENDLETON — The moment country music artist Jason Aldean stopped singing at the Route 91 Harvest festival in Las Vegas on Oct. 1, 2017, two Marines in the crowd heard gunfire and their training kicked in.
"We looked at each other and said, 'We've got to go help,'" Sgt. Austin Cox, a 26-year-old flightline mechanic for Marine Light Training Squadron 303, part of the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, said Monday, April 29. "Our adrenaline was rushing. You just full-blown go. As people ran out, we ran towards chaos."
On Monday, Cox and Marine veteran Sgt. Michael Vura, 26, were awarded Navy and Marine Corps Medals for exceptional bravery and selfless actions in saving lives and preventing serious bodily harm of others around them during the largest mass shooting in modern American history. Fifty-eight people were killed and more than 500 were injured in the shooting.
The awards were signed by Marine Corps Commandant Robert B. Neller for President Donald Trump.
Cox and Vura were presented with the awards in a ceremony on the flightline outside their squadron hangar, in front of family members, friends and Marines in their squadron, as well as squadron commanders and command staff from the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing. The awards were presented by Lt. Col. Jeffrey Sykes and Sgt. Maj. Eric P. Shaffer.
"They didn't win anything here, they earned something," said Maj. Gen. Kevin M. Iiams, commanding general of the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing. "They earned the highest honor for heroism that our nation will give out outside combat operations. That's no small thing. As the group commander reminded me, there's a couple of folks who won this award — John F. Kennedy, yeah. So, not a small thing, they have earned this award."
For Loreto Hannah and her mother-in-law, Jean Hannah, Cox and Vura's act meant the world. The two Marines saved the life of Katrina Hannah, 25, of Huntington Beach, their daughter and grand-daughter, respectively.
"I'm just so proud of them," Loreto Hannah, 59, of La Verne said. "They deserve this and so much more. It's hard to believe that someone would just stop and take care of my daughter. They're Marines, they will do that."
"Without them, she would have bled out on the floor," Jean Hannah, also of La Verne, added. "They're just so courageous."
Lt. Col. Jeffrey Sykes, commanding officer of Marine Light Attack Helicopter Training Squadron (HMLAT) 303, congratulates Navy and Marine Corps Medal recipients Sgt. Austin Cox and Sgt. Michael Vura following an awards ceremony at Marine Corps Air Station Camp Pendleton, April 29, 2019
(U.S. Marine Corps/Lance Cpl. Julian Elliott-Drouin)
The two Marines were in Las Vegas for a three-day weekend. Vura, who served in the Marine Corps for seven years, was leaving a month later. He had asked Cox to accompany him there as a sort of "getting-out gift."
"Both of us being from Ohio, country music is something we bonded on and is one of the reasons we became best friends," Vura said.
As the volley of fire started that night, Cox and Vura ran toward the barricades and began helping dozens of people climb over. They then both ran toward the stage, where they found Katrina Hannah. She had been shot in the neck and back and couldn't speak.
"Even without training, you know you've got to plug the wound," said Cox. "I used my hands."
They were in a space of about five feet between the stage and the barricades. When Cox heard a pause in the shooting, he lifted Hannah and carried her to an area away from the gunfire.
After making sure Cox was OK with Hannah, Vura ran to help a man who had just been shot.
"His significant other was in a frantic state," Vura said. "I took his belt off and applied a tourniquet. He had been shot multiple times. I moved him behind the stage and speakers. Then I continued to make my way around to help others."
Cox and Vura broke apart barricades and used the rails as makeshift gurneys to carry out more wounded to the area where cars and ambulances were arriving. The two split up to reach more people.
Cox jumped into a stranger's car with Hannah and they were driven to a hospital. He stayed there for three hours, covered in blood, with Hannah's mother.
Both men said they are proud to get the award but they never expected to receive this type of distinction.
"You don't expect to get anything from helping people," Cox said. "It's what you do overseas or at home. You do what you can no matter if anyone is looking."
©2019 The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.